The hospitality industry is a hotbed for cybercrime. The industry stores a wealth of personal and sensitive data from customers, making it attractive to cybercriminals. As a result, the sector has become the third-most targeted sector by hackers, according to the Trustwave 2020 Global Security report. A string of notable cyberattacks have impacted the sector in the last five years, such as the attack on the Wyndham Hotel chain from 2008 to 2010. However, these attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The advanced persistent threat (APT) group DarkHotel is a concerning example of this, as it targets high-profile individuals staying at luxury hotel chains, which could threaten national security. The hospitality sector must become more cyber aware, otherwise, it will continue to risk both its customers and reputation.

High-profile individuals at risk

The DarkHotel group is of particular concern as it targets high-level, C-suite executives and high-level figures such as politicians when they stay in luxury hotels, thus gaining access to high-value data. DarkHotel targets have included members of the pharmaceutical industry, car manufacturers, and military-related organisations, who were all targeted while they were travelling. When people travel, they often access hotel Wi-Fi via their personal devices, which are not always fully secured.

DarkHotel is believed to be based in South Korea and started operating in 2007. 90% of DarkHotel’s attacks have occurred in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, including Korea, Taiwan, Russia, China, and Japan.

DarkHotel cyberattack tactics

The group operates using a layered attack that includes spear-phishing, malware, and botnet automation to capture data. Initially, a trojan provides access by targeting vulnerable, customer-facing employees. The attackers then have access to the hotel’s IT systems, allowing the DarkHotel APT to pre-emptively infects the hotel’s Wi-Fi network. A malware payload is then planted, disguised as an Adobe or Internet Explorer software update. When clicked, further spyware is then downloaded to steal confidential data from high-value targets. This ongoing campaign is of particular concern as precise attack methods are used to target high-payoff data.

Luxury hotels in China are among the most targeted

In November 2021, a DarkHotel spear-phishing campaign breached several luxury hotels in Macao, China, including the Wynn Palace. The malware masqueraded as Excel macros and was distributed to hotel management with access to various hotel networks, laying the foundations for a future campaign. One of the attacks included an email pretending to be the Macao Government Tourism Office. Luckily, the Macao Security Force Bureau became aware of the campaign before it was successful. Notably, a string of conferences was due to be held at these hotels, including the International Environment Forum and an International Trade and Investment Fair. Although the Covid-19 pandemic prevented these from going ahead, they would likely have hosted several espionage targets. Therefore, the hospitality sector could be vulnerable to espionage operations.

Cyber ignorance causes significant risk

Although pandemic travel restrictions impacted the number of executives staying at hotels, business travel is now back on the radar and cybercriminals will start resuming their tactics. DarkHotel may start considering locations outside of the APAC region and other groups could start copying DarkHotels’ tactics. The hospitality industry must consider technologies that keep them ahead of incoming threats so that they can stay ahead of cyber attackers and not just play catch up. These strategies should go beyond simply the technology and an effective cybersecurity strategy should consider people too. Implementing internal governance policies regarding rights to sensitive information and educating employees about common attack tactics will ensure that both the hospitality industry and the executives that it hosts take the appropriate countermeasures to protect sensitive information.

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